A striking feature of the recent Assembly elections in West Bengal was the coming together of the Left Front and the Congress, old political and ideological rivals, with both parties even campaigning together for a few seats. However, the informal alliance did not find favour among all members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Left Front. As it turned out, the alliance did not work for the Left parties which fared poorly in these elections. In the event, it provoked considerable criticism in the Central Committee (CC) meeting as a section felt that the party’s tactical alliance with the Congress was a wrong decision “amounting to a deviation”. After a great deal of debate, the CC came to the conclusion that it was not in “consonance” with the political resolutions adopted at the Visakhapatnam party congress of the CPI(M) that had called for maintaining an equal distance from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The discussions revealed sharp differences in the party over its election tactics and, above all, approach towards the Congress, a question that has bedevilled the Indian Left for the better part of its history.
Pursuit of ideological purity
The Left is facing an unprecedented crisis in terms of both strategy and tactics. There is a significant erosion of its electoral base as also its political influence, an erosion which accelerated after breaking with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal in 2008. The biggest setback has been in West Bengal, but there also is a lack of advance in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where the Left parties have failed to strike roots. Since 2009, the Left Front has been consistently losing elections and dropping vote shares across various levels of elections in West Bengal. The Lok Sabha elections in 2009 and 2014 and the Assembly elections in 2011 and 2016 saw diminishing returns marking a steady electoral decline for the Left.
Even though the Left’s very future is at stake, the hotly debated issue is not this, but that of adherence or deviation from the tactical political line. Twenty years ago it was in pursuit of the same ideological purity that the CPI(M) did not let the then West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, become Prime Minister because it would involve allying with “bourgeois” parties like the Congress. Basu had later termed the decision a “historic blunder”. Several party leaders may now acknowledge that if Basu had become Prime Minister, the Left’s influence could well have spread far and beyond its three strongholds. In any case, this time its tie-up with the Congress in West Bengal came up not because of any directive from the top, we are told, but from the ground, from workers of both parties who wanted to join hands to face up to a similar existential threat from a common opponent, the Trinamool Congress.
The question of alliances
The alliance has raised a key question, which is this: given the failure of the electoral tactics adopted in West Bengal, should the CPI(M) avoid future alliances, or should it build such platforms further, keeping in mind long-term benefits that may accrue from it? The matter of alliances comes up regularly in discussions of Left politics but has assumed greater relevance now.
This issue also matters for the larger polity because of three things. First, evidence has been piling up of the ever-deepening fracture between the idea of India and its unsavoury reality under the ruling dispensation dominated by majoritarian politics, crackdown on dissent, saffron assault on educational and cultural institutions and extreme centralisation of power in the Prime Minister’s Office. Second, with the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh due in early 2017, promotion of sectarian strife and communal polarisation, which is likely to include Muzaffarnagar, Dadri and the latest bogey of “exodus” of Hindus from Kairana in western Uttar Pradesh, will be given top priority in winning this crucial State, even as this will further vitiate social harmony in the country. Third, the Left, for all its shortcomings, represents the polity’s progressive, broadminded and compassionate tendencies, which could do with some strengthening these days. All this should be sufficient to settle the debate on the necessity of a broad ‘united front’ for resisting the divisive agenda.
Conspicuously missing in action
The critical concern is whether the Left has a strategy in place to create and participate in such a front or whether it will continue to give primacy to the party’s old anti-Congress, anti-BJP line. The fact is that the right wing in the meantime has become a potent force, and it is imperative to halt its further expansion because this is not just another bourgeois government. The Left should be in the forefront leading the mobilisation against the Right and against the forces of communalism and neoliberalism. But it is often missing in action; there is no serious anti-communal or anti-neoliberal thrust to its activities in West Bengal or Kerala. For example, the critical intervention in the national debate on intolerance came from the intelligentsia, and not from the Left. Again, the major resistance to the government’s attempt to push the Hindutva agenda has been centred in academic and cultural institutions and universities which have upset the Prime Minister enough to shift Smriti Irani from the Ministry of Human Resources and Development to Textiles, presumably for her mishandling of campus unrest and other related issues.
One of the key issues which the Left must address is whether maintaining equal distance from the Congress and the BJP can render ineffective the consolidation of opposition against the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. If the politics of the BJP is the principal factor against which it has to mobilise public opinion, then it is unrealistic to keep railing against the Congress and keep it outside a united front against the BJP. The Left parties are in no position to fight communalism’s divisive agenda alone; they will have to join forces with other political parties to counter the politics of the Sangh Parivar.
It is, moreover, pointless to oppose the Congress when it is no longer the dominant political force, and hence not the source of authoritarian excesses today. After the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it ended up with 44 seats and less than 20 per cent of the vote share. Defeated in Assam and Kerala in the recent round of Assembly elections, the Congress is currently ruling only eight States, and the Union territory of Puducherry. The BJP, on the other hand, apart from the Centre, rules 13 States and is trying to seize power through electoral and non-electoral means in other States (Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh are recent examples of the latter strategy). It is thus not the Congress but the growing ascendancy of the BJP and the threat posed by it to India’s secular, pluralist, democratic structures that should worry and galvanise the Left parties.
A united front against BJP
It is true that the BJP is not an immediate threat in States which matter to the Left parties; even after the recent elections it is still a small presence in Kerala, but it is nonetheless engaged in a violent conflict against the Left. It is of course a vastly different story in north and western India where the BJP has rapidly expanded its electoral footprint and ideological sway even as the opposition to it remains manifestly divided. This makes one thing clear: the Left can’t come to the centre stage of Indian politics by opposing a party which has ceased to be the decisive force in Indian politics. In any case, this time the challenge of polarisation by the Sangh Parivar cannot be met by excluding any of the forces opposed to communal politics, including the Congress.
The Left has to redefine its politics according to what is happening today; it has to adopt flexible tactics to meet the challenges of the present rather than remain tangled in the past. For this it has to engage with democratic forces inimical to the Right to obtain the widest people’s resistance on the ground and a united front in the electoral arena. In this pursuit, a broad-based opposition alliance is the way forward in the difficult road ahead for the Left parties. The alliance between the Congress and the Left in West Bengal was one such move — true, it did not work, but that does not diminish the need to build a secular-democratic front that could form the core for mass mobilisation against the BJP and Narendra Modi in 2019.
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development.